Only days after the parliamentary elections in Yemen on April 27, the US agency for international aid (USAID) announced the return of its mission to the country after seven years, saying that its activities would be restricted to the areas of public health, primary education and the provision of security, and the sources of income and food in certain rural areas.
But according to the agency’s press releases, the mission will also back the Yemeni government’s decentralization policy, and support democratic institutions by providing training for local government officials and assistance during elections. The resumption of the mission’s activities, on a budget of between 10 and 20 million dollars, is in direct response to Yemen’s contribution to the ‘war against terrorism’, the press release said. But despite Yemen’s promise to raise democratic standards, the agency was silent on the widespread cheating and violence marring the poll, which had been blamed on the government and the ruling party by the odd NGO partially observing the elections.
Observers belonging to the National Democratic Institute (an America NGO which also monitored the Nigerian presidential poll on April 19) held the ruling General People’s Congress and the government responsible for most of the violations. The observers also criticized the government’s exclusive control of the media, and its use of the army and the security forces. There were certainly too many soldiers and security men around most polling stations, starting clashes with voters at some of them while closing others and removing ballot-boxes, especially in areas where opposition-parties claimed to have won. The authorities called out 100,00 troops to “maintain security”, but on the first day alone gunfights outside polling-stations in several provinces wounded rival party supporters and one soldier.
More than eight million men and women were expected to vote for a total of 1,200 candidates contesting 301 seats. Twenty-two parties were represented; some candidates stood as independents. The ruling GPC fielded 297 candidates, while the Islamic reform party and the socialist party – Yemen’s two main opposition groups – put up 250 and 114 candidates respectively. The election rules set a 72-hour time-limit for the completion of voting, but the first parliamentary results were officially announced on April 30.
According to these results, the GPC won 214 seats, the Reform party 40, the Socialist party 7, and two small parties 2 seats each; the independent candidates got 14. Later the GPC raised its gains to 225 and the Reform party to 46. One remarkable aspect of the results was the capture of 60 percent of seats in Sana, the capital, by the Reform party. The party’s leaders attributed this to “the fact that because of the presence of international observers” the government could not steal votes – claiming that at the odd polling-station where observers were present the ruling party was invariably beaten.
There were hardly any international observers at the Yemeni elections, whereas foreigners had shown great interest in the Nigerian presidential elections held eight days earlier. Apart from two US groups in Nigeria, there were also observers from the Commonwealth, the Arab League, and the EU, with the last deploying monitors in 31 out of Nigeria’s 36 states. However, the presence of so many observers did not prevent president Obasanjo from stealing votes: the international observers merely reported “serious violations” that allegedly did not affect the validity of the overall results. Similarly, foreign observers allowed to cover the Yemeni elections would probably have come up with mild criticism, as colonel Ali Abdullah Saleh is a close ally of the US, particularly in the ‘war against terror’.
In fact Ali Saleh’s assault on Islamic groups and other opponents, branded by the US as terrorists or al-Qa’ida sympathisers, has made Yemen unstable and hostile to foreign observers. Saleh began his campaign less than one month after his meeting with Bush on November 27, 2001, and has intensified it since – sending tanks and helicopter-gunships into areas the US believes to be under the control of al-Qa’ida sympathizers or of tribal leaders harboring them. Saleh is so committed to the campaign that he even allows his son, colonel Ahmad, to lead special army units dispatched to attack those districts. The colonel, who is head of the Republican Guard, led army units into Ma’arib and Shabwa provinces.
Saleh’s anti-terror campaign is not, however, confined to military attacks. All Shari’ah schools have also been at the receiving end of the venomous joint US-Yemeni war against the country’s Islamic and national radicalism. Foreign students and teachers are being expelled and the immigration law amended to make the entry of others into the country more difficult. And US diplomats in Yemen are known to have toured schools, even in remote areas, to check on the expulsion of any student considered sympathetic to al-Qa’ida, or simply anti-American. Members of the first group to be expelled are nationals of Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Indonesia – all suspected of terrorism by Washington.
The Yemenis justify these moves on the grounds that the students have violated immigration laws, but that does not explain why all educational establishments have been made subject to the new measures. It is interesting that the new USAID mission’s activities in Yemen include “support for educational services”. The mission’s press release admits that part of its budget will go to the fight against terrorism.
President Saleh’s anti-terror campaign also includes a vicious legal and judicial campaign against all activists and tribal leaders opposed to his alliance with Uncle Sam, or to US policy on the Middle East. An example of the legal campaign was seen on April 13, when the security authorities arrested 35 Yemeni youths at Sana airport who were returning from Iraq via Damascus, the Syrian capital. They had left the country without government permission to fight against the coalition forces in Iraq. The authorities then immediately put in place strict measures at Yemeni airports and border crossings to prevent volunteers from leaving the country.
Ali Saleh’s irresponsible campaign in a country that has strong tribal loyalties and that fought a civil war as late as 1994 has only made Yemen’s people more defiant. But this alliance with Washington is not likely to wobble. Dr Abdul Karim al-Ariani, secretary-general of Yemen’s ruling party, has told the Arab daily al-Hayat that Sana’s alliance with the US is firm.